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Legends of the Vietnamese Watery Realm

Compiled by Vu Huu San

1- Introduction

Vietnam is a country of Legends and Myths.

Several legends which were remembered by the Vietnamese generations, expressed their earliest identity as a super-maritime people.

Beyond the details of these legends lies a basic psychological truth of ancient Vietnamese society: sovereign power came from the sea. Lac Long Quan belonged to the watery realm. As we have seen, certain elements of these legends are similar to legendary themes found in the island and coastal world of Southeast Asia. The idea of an aquatic spirit's being the source of political power and legitimacy, which attended the formation of the Vietnamese people in prehistoric times, is the earliest hint of the concept of the Vietnamese as a distinct and self-conscious people. This idea was given clear visual form in the art of the Dong-son bronze drums, where sea birds and amphibians surround boats bearing warriors. (The Birth of Vietnam, Keith Weller Taylor, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1983, 6-7.)

Vietnamese legends tell of sea kings and mountain kings; of dragons and fairies ... These stories have been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years. The stories are a mixture of truth and fantasy. Some of the stories explain Vietnamese customs. Some tell about the history of Vietnam. The stories also have a moral purpose. They teach that those who commit evil deeds will come to a bad end, while those who do good will be rewarded. They teach us important lessons about friendship, family loyalty, and forgiveness of others. They also point out the duty that people owe to their king and their country. (Legends from Vietnam, A Language Arts Program; University of Iowa, 1983, p. 5.)


2- Non-Confucian Traditions in Legends and Myths.

Professor Nguyen Ngoc Bich once wrote: Many traditional Vietnamese myths were originally conceived as instruments of protest, as weapons in the struggle against foreign invaders and foreign ideologies, especially the Chinese Confucian ideology. This form of protest is found again and again in later centuries in Vietnamese history: in the 13th and 14th centuries (through the reaffirmation of old Vietnamese myths); in the 18th century with the protest literature represented by Cong Quynh (or Trang Quynh) and Chang Lia; in the 19th century with the creation of new myths, in the 20th century with the creation of new religions incorporating a great deal of myths (such as Hoa Hao and Caodaism in South Vietnam); and even in the present day with the spontaneous creation of a vast folk literature of protest. (Conclusion: Vietnamese Myths Through the Ages.)

Almost every Vietnamese legends represented the background of an aquatic scenery with water creatures and under-sea form of living: dragon, turtle, serpent, fish, pearl, under-water palace…

Some tales seem not understandable by the continental Chinese. The main reason was that the vast land-mass of China absorbed their energies. 2634 B.C. The Chinese did not develop as a seafaring nation. Equally, the absence of neighboring nations with whom to trade played a large part in the development of the introspective conservatism of the Chinese…In the legends of China, chronicled in the Shu Ching (Canon of History), the first three emperors, Fu Hsi, Shen Nung and Huang Ti, are each credited with a share in the invention of all the main activities of the people, including matrimony, building houses and the introduction of a calendar, but no mention is made of the sea, ships or of fishing (although hunting is mentioned). It is against this background that the virtual absence of Chinese sea-legend and sea sagas has to be viewed. (The Maritime History of the World, by Duncan Haws and Alex A. Hurst-A Chronological Survey of Maritime Events From 5,000 B.C. until the present Day, Teredo Books LTD., Brighton Sussex MCMLXXXV (1985).